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House keys, office keys, car keys, Club key, mail box key, password (well, sort of).
Chasidic philosophy offers an interesting analogy involving a key. If someone has a locked treasure chest, he can't see the treasure inside. But since he knows the treasure belongs to him, and he has the key in his hand, when he wants he can look inside. In the meantime, then, though he doesn't see the treasure, he rejoices because he knows he can at any time.
Chasidism gives us the key to understanding Rosh Hashana and the days leading up to it, days of preparation and inspiration.
Rosh Hashana is the Day of Judgment, the day we blow the shofar, coronating, as it were, G-d as King. We don't go to an important event unprepared, physically, emotionally or mentally. We have to look right, we have to "feel right," and we have to think right.
The month of Elul, the month that precedes Rosh Hashana, is the time to make a personal accounting, to prepare ourselves spiritually - and in other ways - for Rosh Hashana. And the closer we come to the Big Day, the more intense the preparations.
So it's no surprise to know that the twelve days before Rosh Hashana have a special quality. Twelve days = twelve months of the year. One day for each month. On each day we review our conduct for the corresponding month of the previous year. We note the strengths to be strengthened and the weaknesses to be corrected. That way, when we present ourselves before G-d on Rosh Hashana, and say we've turned ourselves around, we'll know what we're talking about.
On the 18th of Elul, we review our conduct from the previous Tishrei, the month that contains within Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur.
Since Judaism teaches us that nothing occurs by coincidence, but that all "fortuities" are actually Divine Providence, it's no coincidence that both the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chasidism, and Rabbi Shneur Zalman, founder of Chabad Chasidism, were born on the 18th of Elul.
Rabbi Shneur Zalman explains that every Rosh Hashana introduces a new light into the world. And Chasidism brings to light the inner teachings of the Torah. And when a child is born, he comes into the light of day; on subsequent birthdays, his innate abilities, his nature and character become revealed.
In a sense, then, the 18th of Elul - Chai Elul, as it's called in Hebrew - the life of Elul - gives life and light to Tishrei. The two - Chai Elul and Tishrei - correspond. For this reason, Chai Elul has been referred to as a "hidden holiday."
But how do we get from the "hidden light," or "potential light," of Chai Elul to the "revealed light" of Rosh Hashana? That's where the Baal Shem Tov and Rabbi Shneur Zalman come in. Their leadership, their teachings, embody and manifest the essence of Chai Elul. They've given us the key. The key is the "inner teachings," the "inner light" of Torah, through which we can reveal the "new light" of Rosh Hashana - that G-d is King and our task is to make the world a dwelling place for Him. We will see the ultimate fulfillment of that task when the whole world will be filled with knowledge of G-d as the waters cover the ocean - in the Messianic Era.
That is the is the locked treasure chest. But lets not just be satisfied with knowing that we have the key. Let's use our key - the teachings of Chasidism - and unlock the treasure.
The opening words of the Torah portion, Ki Tavo, outline the precept of bikurim, the first ripe fruits which were to be brought as an offering of thanks to G-d for giving us the Land of Israel.
One of the points emphasized by the commentators on these opening verses is that as long as the entire Land was not yet in the possession of the Jewish nation, the individual Israelite who had already received his portion of the country was not required to bring the bikurim offering.
The bikurim offering was an expression of overwhelming gratitude to G-d for coming into the Holy Land and enjoying its fruits. For the individual who had already entered the land, taken possession of his portion and enjoyed the fruits, was it not ungrateful to wait until the end of the fourteen years of conquest and apportionment to the tribes before bringing bikurim? Why were these individuals not required to offer bikurim to thank G-d for the good He had already bestowed upon them?
Here, however, is where the Torah's great teaching of ahavat Yisrael (love for another Jew) comes into play: The bikurim offering was to be brought as an expression of complete, perfect joyousness. This is evident from several laws of bikurim, e.g. they were to be brought only from the fruits with which Israel was praised; they were to be brought only once a year-because something which is repeated during the year does not evoke as much joy. But all our people are interconnected, and so long as even one single Jew remained who had not yet taken possession of his inheritance in Israel-however lowly and "unimportant" that person may have been-then there was something missing from the goodness and pleasure experienced by all his brother Jews. For all Israel is as one. Empathy for another's lack is to reach the point of feeling the emptiness within oneself. Since the joy of those who had already taken possession of their own portion was incomplete (because of their brother's lack), they could not bring bikurim!
Ki Tavo is always read close to the 18th of Elul. This date is the anniversary of the birth (in 1698) of the Baal Shem Tov, founder of Chasidism in general, and of the birth (in 1745) of Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, founder of Chabad-Lubavitch Chasidism. These two great luminaries of Chasidism made ahavat Yisrael the touchstone of their teachings and the exemplary feature of their own personal lives. The Baal Shem Tov's foremost disciple, Rabbi Dov Ber of Mezritch stated, "If only we could kiss the Torah scroll with the same tender affection that my master, the Baal Shem Tov, would embrace the small children he brought to cheder." And Rabbi Shneur Zalman's followers lived with the motto, "The piece of bread that I have is yours just as it is mine," and they would say the word yours first, "...yours just as it is mine."
From The Chasidic Dimension, adapted from the works of the Lubavitcher Rebbe
Rising From Under the Chair
by Elchonon Lesches
His eyes had seen what eyes should never see; his ears had heard what ears should never hear. Selected to live through the horrors of war, he left Hungary immediately after the Allied liberation, traveling to a distant country where he could begin life anew.
It was strange this new country, a country of pastel colors, drenching sunshine, and fun-loving people. He married a Holocaust survivor and began raising a family again. When a group of survivors formed to build a synagogue, he was there, helping to round out their fledgling congregation. But it was not like "the old country." Even the young rabbi sent there by the Lubavitcher Rebbe seemed different than the Hungarian rabbis he had revered. The rabbi was an energetic scholar with a proliferation of seemingly impossible ideas - a Jewish Day School, adult education and, of course, outreach.
He often grumbled to his Hungarian friends as they waited patiently for morning services to start, "A succa on wheels, a menora in the mall, tefilin in the streets - what will they think of next?" His colleagues commiserated, but pointed out how the congregation had swelled in size, all thanks to their charismatic rabbi. The new worshipers came in all shapes: long hair, earrings, baggy street clothes, but at least they came. And soon the Day School materialized, together with a summer camp and a broad kosher network.
He grudgingly agreed from his seat, the last one on the back bench. It was "his" seat, a hallowed place no one dared violate. Woe to the child who left a candy wrapper on his chair! His voice would resonate throughout the shul as he condemned all parties involved - the child, the parents, and, of course, the candy man. With time, the newer members learned to tolerate and even respect this cantankerous old-timer who had lived through much.
Early one Saturday morning, with the rabbi's animated class in Chasidic philosophy well under-way, he ambled through the shul until he reached the back row, and stopped at his seat in horror. A book lay there - a picture book! The book was a glossy photo-journal album celebrating 30 years of the Rebbe's leadership. "Disgrace of disgraces!" he blazed angrily. "A picture book in a shul!" He shook the book and threw it violently under the bench.
The class came to sudden standstill; a shocked silence filled the room. The rabbi stood up abruptly, walked to the back row, and began a story:
While Rabbi Shneur Zalman, founder of Chabad Chasidism, languished in jail on trumped up charges, his distraught followers turned to a well-connected opponent of Chasidism, asking for his help in freeing the Rebbe. After some thought, he agreed on condition that the Rebbe would visit three leading scholars within the non-Chasidic world. Rabbi Shneur Zalman readily agreed to this request.
After his release, Rabbi Shneur Zalman visited three great scholars. On one of his visits, he noticed a book lying on the floor, kicked under a chair. It was Noam Elimelech, a chasidic work written by the celebrated Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk. Shaken, Rabbi Shneur Zalman picked up the book, kissed it reverentially, and placed it carefully on the table.
His host, the scholar, looked at him disparagingly. "Do you know the author?" he jeered.
"I will tell you the absolute truth," replied Rabbi Shneur Zalman. "Were you to take the author, stuff him under a chair, and sit on the chair, the author would accept his lot humbly! Such is his greatness."
"And I say the same," declared the rabbi. "Were you to place the Rebbe himself under the bench, he would accept it quietly! Such is his greatness."
The rabbi returned to his class. From the corner of his eye, he watched as the book was lifted from the floor, dusted quickly, and placed on a nearby bench.
A few months passed. One day, the old timer approached the rabbi. "I'm visiting Israel next week," he said. "I plan to stop in New York and see your Rebbe. I want to judge the Rebbe myself. I want to see if he is as humble as you claim. You see, I still remember your story."
And so he arrived, entering the shul of 770 just in time for the afternoon service. As he waited for the Rebbe to arrive, he thought of the Chasidic masters who graced Hungary in the pre-war years. He recalled their saintliness, their wisdom, their empathy and concern, but the rabbi's remark about absolute humility had caught him by surprise. It seemed paradoxical: a Rebbe who wielded absolute influence across the globe, whose dedicated soldiers were manning congregations worldwide, whose empire was the envy of every other Jewish organization - could still epitomize humility and remain self-effacing.
He watched curiously as the Rebbe entered the quiet hall, wearing the simple caftan and fedora the rabbi back home wore every day. Two, three attendants followed at a respectful distance. The Rebbe came closer, closer, and stopped right in front of the visitor. He bent down ... and picked up a tiny scrap of paper dirtying the synagogue floor. Then the Rebbe straightened up, looked penetratingly at the visitor, and walked to his place for the prayers.
The congregation began praying, but the visitor heard nothing. Shaken to the core, he realized that the Rebbe's humility far exceeded the story related by the rabbi. No one had forced the Rebbe into an unpleasant position; he had voluntarily stooped to the floor in order to tidy a house of worship. The attendants standing nearby, the hundreds of chasidim in attendance, the inestimable workload on the Rebbe's shoulders - all disappeared before a scrap of paper. This was true humility, on a scale that far exceeded anything he had seen in "the old country."
He left fortified, armed with a mission. He knew why the Rebbe had favored him with a careful look. He would stop carping about irrelevant matters, forever finding fault with the wonderful people who spent their lives inspiring others. Instead, he would join forces with the rabbi, help sponsor his succa on wheels, tefilin in the streets, Jewish Day School, or whatever other innovation that he deemed necessary to revitalized local Jewish life. The Rebbe had taught him to "clean up" his act. And so he did.
Reprinted from the N'Shei Chabad Newsletter
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Freely translated from a letter of the Rebbe
27 Elul, 5707 
Greetings and blessings,
...I will conclude with subjects of contemporary relevance which I wrote to another person: At the farbrengen of Chai Elul [the anniversary of the birthday of the Baal Shem Tov - founder of general Chasidism and Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi - founder of Chabad Chasidim], my revered father-in-law, the Rebbe Shlita, related that the early chassidim would say: "Chai Elul injects vitality into the Divine service of 'I am my Beloved's and my Beloved is mine.'" (The first letters of the words of that verse combine to form the name Elul.)
It is possible to explain that a living person and a person who is not alive both possess all 248 limbs. The difference is that a living person also possesses a soul that enables the body to grow from childhood to maturity and enables him to move from place to place.
Our Rabbis (Tanya, ch. 38) explain that the intent of the mitzvos [commandments] - to cling to G-d - resembles the soul for the body of the mitzvos. This comes through generating or uncovering one's love and fear of G-d. This comes through the study of pnimiyus haTorah [the inner teachings of the Torah] in general, and in particular through the study of Chasidus, as explained in several sources.
Through the intent of clinging to G-d, one comes to the greatest growth and movement possible. Indeed, this alone represents true movement, as is well known with regard to the concept of "one who progresses" and "those who stand." This progress comes about when a limited created being clings to the Creator who is unlimited, as it is written: "And you who cling to G-d, your L-rd, are living...."
This is the interpretation of the adage that Chai Elul, the birthday of the Baal Shem Tov, the day when his teachings were revealed, and the birthday of the Alter Rebbe, injects vitality into the Divine service of "I am my Beloved's and my Beloved is mine," i.e., enabling the created beings to cling to the Creator.
On a deeper level, it is possible to explain as follows: Even a limb that is not alive has flesh, sinews, and bones. All of these serve as analogies within our Divine service. The bones refer to the Divine service of the mind, the flesh, to that of the heart and the sinews, to the connection between the two, as explained in Likkutei Torah, Parshas Pinchas, the second discourse entitled Tzav... Korbani Lachmi. Nevertheless, as they exist in their own right, they do not represent true vitality. That is achieved only through the preface of kabbalas ol, the acceptance of G-d's yoke. In particular, this refers to the kabalas ol of Rosh Hashana. See the discourse published for Rosh Hashana this year with regard to the concepts of individual life-energy, general life-energy, vitality that exists to grant life to others, and essential vitality.
With wishes for a kesiva vachasima tova [may you be inscribed and sealed for good],
- (Back to text) As explained in Torah Or, Bereishis, p. 30a, et al., the verse (Zechariah 3:7): "I will make you one who proceeds among these who stand" highlights the difference between the souls of the Jewish people ("one who proceeds") and the angels ("these who stand"). For when the Jews descend to this material world and observe the Torah and its mitzvos, they are endowed with an infinite quality. This represents true progress.
Reprinted from I Will Write It In Their Hearts, translated by Rabbi Eli Touger, published by Sichos In English.
17 Elul, 5763 - September 14, 2003
Positive Mitzva 199: Returning Security for Loans
This commandment is based on the verse (Deut. 24:13) "You shall surely return the pledge to him." A person who borrows money may be asked to provide security for the loan. Upon repaying the loan, the lender will return the security. However, the borrower may need the article he gave even before he repays the loan. For instance, the Torah describes a situation where a needy person gives his only blanket as a security. The lender must realize that the borrower will need that blanket at night. He is commanded to give it to the borrower at night and may collect it again the next morning. In other cases, as well, we are commanded to return security to a borrower whenever he needs it.
Rabbi Shmuel M. Butman
An individual's birthday has a very special meaning for that person. The birthday of a tzadik - a truly righteous individual - has deep significance for everyone who attempts to live according to the tzadik's teachings. A tzadik's birthday is, in some ways like the spiritual birthday of his followers.
The birthdays of two great tzadikim are this coming Wednesday, the 18h of Elul (corresponding this year to Monday, September 15). On the 18th ("Chai") of Elul, the Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Chasidic movement, and Rabbi Shneur Zalman, follower of the Baal Shem Tov and founder of Chabad Chasidut, were born.
These two great men dedicated their lives to teaching about the worth of every single Jew. Ahavat Yisrael - unconditional love of each Jew was at the forefront of their philosophy.
Today, nearly two centuries later, we benefit from the guidance and revelations of the Baal Shem Tov and Rabbi Shneur Zalman. The date of their birth, then, is not only their birthday - it is also our birthday. On our birthday we take time out to reflect on our achievements of the past year and our goals for the future.
It is fitting that on the birthday of these tzadikim, we reflect on how well we have followed and benefited from them, and we make our resolutions for the New Year.
We will, in their merit, be blessed with a K'tiva Vachatima Tova, a happy, healthy and prosperous New Year.
Since you did not serve the L-rd your G-d out of joy and gladness of heart...you shall serve your enemies (Deut. 28:47).
Joy holds such importance in the service of G-d. The implication of the verse is that the severe punishment of serving one's enemies comes only as a result of joy lacking from our G-dly service. It is as if joy in our service awakens joy in G-d Himself and annuls all harsh judgments.
(Rabbi Shneur Zalman)
I have not transgressed any of your commandments neither have I forgotten (Deut. 26:13).
Why were two such similar statements necessary? To teach us that it is possible to fulfill a commandment and at the same time forget it. This happens when one fulfills it without intent-while the mind is focused on other things.
And G-d has avouched you this day...to keep all His commandments. (Deut. 26:18)
Is it not already stated in the previous verse, "and to keep His laws and commandments"? Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev explained that the verse "and to keep all His commandments" here refers to G-d Himself, Who is also obligated to keep His commandments to us, especially the mitzva of "you shall not delay in paying your hired laborer," and He must give us all life and sustenance.
The Baal Shem Tov (Besht) loved all Jews. He would invite the poor and simple folk to eat with him on the Sabbath and holidays. His brilliant disciples and the many scholars who also sat at the table could not understand why the Besht showered so much attention on these unlearned people.
Knowing how the scholars felt, the Besht once said: "You are surprised that I should favor the simple people, aren't you? It is true that they have not learned as much as you; some of them even do not know the meaning of the prayers they recite every day. But their hearts are made of gold. They love humanity and all of G-d's creatures. They are humble and honest. How I envy them!"
The Besht looked at them earnestly and said, "I will show you soon that I have not exaggerated."
During the third meal on the Sabbath, it was the Besht's custom to teach his disciples the secrets of the Torah. The simple folk who could not understand the mysteries of the Torah would go into an adjoining room, where they would recite the Psalms of David as best they could.
On this occasion, the Besht closed his eyes, becoming deeply engrossed. Suddenly his face lit up with great joy. When he opened his eyes, all of his disciples could feel his happiness. The Besht turned to the student sitting on his right. "Place your right hand on the shoulder of your neighbor." He ordered the next one to do the same, and the next, until they all formed a chain. Then he told them to sing a melody which they sang only on the most solemn occasions. "Sing as you have never sung before," he instructed them. As they sang, they felt their hearts rising higher and higher.
When they finished singing, the Besht completed the human circle by placing his hands on the shoulders of the students next to him. "Let us close our eyes and concentrate," the Besht said.
An intermingling of melodious voices filled the room. Some of these wondrous voices expressed unshakable faith, others were full of joyous abandon, still others expressed heart-rending appeal. They could clearly distinguish the saintly words of the Psalms. The circle of disciples sat spellbound. They lost all sense of time and place; tears flowed from their closed eyes and their hearts were full of ecstasy, ready to burst.
Suddenly, the singing stopped, for the Besht had removed his arms and broken the chain. The Besht then explained to them how much G-d enjoys listening to the Psalms, especially when they come straight from the pure hearts of simple, honest, humble people.
"But whose voices did we hear a little while ago?" asked the disciples. "You were listening for one brief moment to the Psalms recited by the simple people in the next room, as the angels in heaven hear them!"
Once, when Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of and first Rebbe of Chabad, was visiting a small town, a fire broke out. He asked to be taken to the site of the fire and, upon arriving there, stood leaning on his cane for a few moments. The fire quickly died down.
When the soldiers who had been trying to put out the fire saw what happened, they ran to their officer and told him about it.
"Ask the rabbi to come to me," he commanded them.
When Rabbi Shneur Zalman arrived, the officer asked if he was perhaps the son or grandson of the Baal Shem Tov.
"I am not the Baal Shem Tov's grandson in a bodily sense," explained Rabbi Shneur Zalman, "but I am the disciple of his disciple - his spiritual grandson."
"If that is true," said the officer, "then I am not amazed at what took place today. Let me tell you a story," continued the officer.
"My father was a general, and once, when he and his troops were encamped in the town of Mezhibuzh, he was worried about his wife. He had not heard from her for some time. Seeing how upset he was, his friends advised him to seek out the Baal Shem Tov, known to be a holy man amongst the Jews.
"My father sent a message to the Baal Shem Tov asking to be received for an audience, but the Baal Shem Tov refused. Again and again he requested an audience, and each time the holy rabbi denied his request. My father thought of a plan. He sent word to the Baal Shem Tov that if he refused once more, my father would force all the Jews of Mezhibuzh to billet his troops in their homes. Since it was nearly Passover, this would wreak havoc in the Jewish homes. The Baal Shem Tov agreed to see my father so as not to cause the Jews any distress.
"My father entered the home of the Baal Shem Tov, and from where he stood at the entrance, was able to see the holy rabbi in his room studying. My father walked over to a nearby mirror to make sure he looked presentable. He was amazed to see in the mirror, not his own likeness, but a road which lead to the town where he and his wife lived. He called over his aide to witness this remarkable scene and the aide, too, saw the same thing in the mirror.
"As they continued to stare into the mirror, they seemed to walk along the path to my father's house until they finally reached the front door. The front door opened, and there was my mother sitting at the table, writing a letter. Looking more closely, they saw the letter itself. In the letter, my father read that my mother had recently given birth to a baby boy, and for this reason could not write more quickly. Both she and her son were well.
"My father was overwhelmed and overjoyed by the experience. He thanked the Baal Shem Tov profusely, and after some time, received the letter which my mother had written. He recorded in his diary the entire episode.
"I am that infant," revealed the officer.
Nine Red Heifers were prepared...: the first was prepared by Moses, the second by Ezra, and there were seven from the time of Ezra until the Destruction of the Second Holy Temple. The tenth will be prepared by Moshiach, May he speedily be revealed! Amen, may this be G-d's will!
(Mishneh Torah of Maimonides, Laws of the Red Heifer)